The main themes of Triangle include class and division, profit, and progress.
- Class and division: The story of the shirtwaist strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire illuminates divisions between the upper and working classes, as well as between immigrant communities.
- Profit: Although the factory’s owners were themselves immigrants who had worked in the garment industry, they sacrificed their own workers’ safety for the sake of profit.
- Progress: While the Triangle fire demonstrated the failure of the shirtwaist strike to achieve real progress, it left a lasting legacy, contributing to labor reform and the transformation of the Democratic Party.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039
Class and Division
Class, ethnic, and gender divisions run through the story of the Triangle Factory fire; all those who died were immigrants, and most were women. The lack of protections for workers at this time meant that the working class were exploited by business owners, who forced them to work long hours in terrible conditions for very little money. The involvement of rich, socially progressive women such as Anne Morgan with the shirtwaist general strike in 1909 brought a great deal of money and attention to the cause but also limited what it could achieve. Many working-class women felt that it was hypocritical of members of the upper class to join a cause they were not part of after years of profiting from others’ labor, while many wealthy donors believed the union’s demands for a closed shop were too radical. Class fractured the strike, determining who held the power to create change and who did not.
Ethnic divisions among immigrant communities also played a role, as Italian women were not encouraged to join unions or even work in the same way that Jewish women were. This meant that factory owners tried to divide striking workers along racial lines to weaken the movement. Conversely, the waves of socially aware “new immigrants” who were arriving in New York around the time of the fire helped to change Tammany Hall’s politics, as Charles F. Murphy realized how important it was to appeal to this group if he wanted their votes. New immigrants and the Triangle fire thus became an integral part of the evolution of American liberalism and the modern Democratic Party.
At almost every point in the years surrounding the Triangle disaster, money was of the utmost importance to Blanck and Harris. Although they were immigrants themselves and remembered working in unregulated conditions, they believed that enough progress had been made and became focused on making as much money as possible. This is especially clear during their trial, when Harris testified to having employed anti-theft tactics such as raiding the homes of workers and searching each worker’s bag as they left the factory. When questioned, he admitted that the annual loss through theft was only about $25. The locked doors on the Washington Place side of the building prevented workers from taking breaks outside the factory or stealing materials without their bags being checked.
Blanck and Harris’s interest in profit is also evident in their opposition to their workers organizing into unions. In the general strike of 1909, they went so far as to bring in new employees to the factory in order to resist the strikers’ demands and managed to successfully prevent an agreement in which their workers would have to join the union. The Triangle owners’ attitude to fire also demonstrates that they placed profit above the safety of their workers, as installing precautions such as sprinklers would mean that they would not be able to set fires to their leftover stock and claim insurance, as they had in the past. Despite the fact that fire-safe factories had been a reality for decades, lack of enforcement allowed owners like Blanck and Harris to take advantage of insurance policies and therefore put their workers at risk.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Triangle Factory disaster was seen as a sign of how much progress was yet to be made in the movement for workers’ rights and how little had been achieved by the 1909 general strike. Ultimately, the strike “had not even guaranteed basic safety,” for despite the public shows of grief and protest, very little was done by politicians and government to create lasting change. Many of those who survived the Triangle fire or were witness to the tragedy were afraid that it would quickly be dismissed with a symbolic gesture and lead to no real reform. The wealthy donors who had thought Clara Lemlich’s demands too radical during the 1909 strike were now convinced of the need for progress, and Tammany Hall realized the importance of appealing to new immigrants through labor reform.
The Factory Investigating Commission was the central force for labor reform in the years after the Triangle disaster, bringing together Tammany Hall politicians and activists such as Clara Lemlich to push for new laws. Their work allowed laws to be passed that were “unmatched to that time in American history,” and twenty-five bills were pushed through Albany that “entirely recast the labor law of the nation’s largest state.” Led by Tammany members Alfred E. Smith and Robert Wagner, these “liberal heroes” transformed the Democratic Party’s image into one of progressivism and working-class solidarity.
Throughout the book, Von Drehle emphasizes how much of the history surrounding the Triangle fire has been forgotten; to remedy this, recovers the stories of those who worked and died in the factory, reconstructing what their lives would have been like as immigrants and workers in the garment factories of New York.
Von Drehle also acknowledges the work of Leon Stein, who “wrenched key parts of the Triangle story free from history’s tar pit.” Stein wrote a full account of the tragedy in 1962, after speaking with survivors and reading the trial transcript. Von Drehle continues this work in his own book: he places individual experiences at the heart of the history, describing the fire, its buildup, and its aftermath through the eyes of those who experienced it. In the chapters describing the fire itself, Von Drehle focuses on reconstructing what different individuals, such as Kate Alterman and Yetta Lubitz, did or may have done. In doing so, he illuminates in detail how the workers themselves reacted to the fire and emphasizes that the smallest decisions often determined who would survive and who would not: “Such tiny strokes of fortune decided, repeatedly and remorselessly, who would live and who would die.”
By giving insight into some of the women workers’ histories in chapter 4, Von Drehle highlights the importance of knowing the emotional side of the story rather than simply the bare historical facts. Without this insight—for example, the story of Rosie Freedman’s escape from the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement—the lives of the individuals who died would be lost.